At the ocean I stare
The horizon full of promise
I yearn for a glimpse of my twilight
Is it joyous or full of regret?
Not a day shall I waste
And my twilight shall be joyous!
The current wrangling within the Nigerian political class is good for our nation. Hitherto, it was a fait accompli that whoever the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) chose would get elected; at least at the presidential level. That doesn’t seem all too likely at the moment. Lest the opposition starts to celebrate an early victory, the power of incumbency comes with advantages that could still tilt the tide in favour of the President. And I’d be weary of the President’s good luck if I were the opposition.
Recent reports about the opposition’s plans to block executive bills would make President Jonathan stronger. If true, it also suggests the opposition has not started to act/think like a party that wants power. One is somewhat nonplussed that the President doesn’t use his bully pulpit often. For goodness sake, you are the President! The time for appeasement is over. If President Jonathan wants to get re-elected, he should use all the powers and resources at his disposal to get his pending bills through. Make no mistake about it; if the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is not passed before the expiration of the tenure of the current president, it is not likely to see the light of day ever again.
The fear of the vested interests determined to unseat the current president is so overwhelming that the least the President can do is fight back. If not for anything, he should do it to reassert the dignity and authority of the office of the President. There is a reason Nigeria can only be governed under a republican system. What, with the various disparate parts that were put together by our British colonialists precisely to ensure we continue to work at cross-purposes, only a strong centre can hold us together. This is not a case for the enervation of the legislature. They should rightly continue to check the executive. But the president’s power extends beyond his authority. Irrespective of the shortcomings of the holder of that office, by precisely being the president, you have influence.
The president should and must run! He should run even if all the polls tell him he would lose. He should run if only to make the point that a president cannot be scared from office. He should run precisely to make the point that the law is the ultimate guide for behavior. He should run even if he might be the first president in the history of Nigeria to lose an election. He should run because God forbid that it is etched in our memory that only a section of the country can guarantee the security of this country. He should run because Nigeria belongs to all of us!
For the record, I’m not a fan of the President. I think he could have acted earlier and strongly to arrest the terrorist threat in Northeastern Nigeria. I think he should have asserted himself earlier. The president was a late starter. However, he is president! If he has any doubt about his stature and the pivotal role providence has placed on him to shape or mar our nation’s history, he should observe the vehemence and aggression of his opponents. Simply put, the president has been soft! Those who wonder where our oil revenue has gone are justified. Even if we cannot prove corruption – considering how sophisticated its practitioners have become – albeit we know it is rife, there remains wide consensus on the continuing wastage of our resources. And there has been more waste in our recent history than in any period of our entire history. Never mind the fabled gulf oil windfall disappearance during military rule.
If the opposition wants to win, it should champion the passage of important bills like the PIB. It should insist on a robust debate. And the president should be wise enough to ensure the opposition can get some credit for the feat. As the president meets with his party members to repair the wounded ruling party, he should also meet with the opposition, not just to woo hitherto card-carrying PDP governors, but also to negotiate how the current pending bills and 2014 budget can be passed without political football. And Mr. president, leave the central bank alone.
Nigerians are always the ultimate beneficiaries of elite bickering. If they don’t fight, how would we the people know the many things they hide from us? We should go into the upcoming elections not sure who the ultimate winner would be! That way, they would stoop and jump to please us. They would be forced to make promises that are in their self-interest to keep not because they are afraid of us the people (We know they are not!); but because they know there is someone with a unique patterned headgear down south that will shout from any mountaintop the moment they are underperforming. The opposition should keep up the pressure. President Jonathan blossoms under pressure. And yes, their opposition has resulted in a new mortgage policy, a planned social security system, power sector privatization, and perhaps future elections that would be fairer and more competitive; especially since the incumbent needs to win fair and square to ensure his legitimacy is not in doubt. And the president should certainly not create a precedent that an incumbent can be scared out of office. Otherwise, that would be the narrative for anyone who decides to contests from his region. That you only need to scare them southerners, and they’ll unravel.
The president must become his wife. He should combine the strength of the wife of his predecessor and his and go headlong into the coming elections. And if he wants to win, he should focus on performance! It is still for him to lose.
Kuala Lumpur, 5th November 2011
I’m waiting at the airport for my Dubai-bound flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when I remember the remark by a senior WASP at a training course I had been attending for the previous six weeks. He was one of the senior investment bankers come to give us a talk about how to succeed in today’s global workplace. So naturally, he’d ask about the backgrounds of the eager beavers in front him: Americans, Asians, Europeans, and yes, Africans! Upon introducing yourself, he made some quip about his experience in the part of the world you are from. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been to much of Africa. “I go to Africa when I want to see some lions!” Smile now, African boy; c’mon smile! That bit about smiling is a dialogue I’m having with myself. Surely, I wasn’t about to let the immaculately-dressed gentleman see my chagrin. To him, that was what quickly came to mind about Africa. Lions! Not people, not opportunities, not even poverty; Lions! A glass half empty interpretation; Africa is all bush where animals live. So, I’ll go there when I want to relax and see animals. I’ll leave the productive stuff for when I get back to Hong Kong or Singapore. This piece on my ruminations on that fateful day in Kuala Lumpur is not going to be a diatribe about that gentleman and his jaundiced view of Africa. Afterall, global media is quick to look for poverty-stricken parts of our major cities. It is unbelievably difficult to find a report on an African city that is complimentary. They have to show a slum, the poverty, as if that were exclusive to Africa. As if when they visit, those are the areas they stay in. You only need to stay a while in the lobbies of the 5-star hotels in African capital cities. You’d see them: the numerous NGO and media types basking in the African sunshine and enjoying choice wines, going about in chauffeur-driven SUVs and you’d wonder why won’t they highlight these part of their trips that they look forward to. No, instead they make the unlikely trip to the slum areas (which actually requires some effort) and present that to the world.
I don’t know that I’ve even happened on a lion before and I lived most of my adult life in West Africa (the lions are in the south I think). So, I’m on the streets of London three years later trying to determine the thought process of that individual some hundred or so years ago, another WASP. This WASP is thinking about his upcoming journey to Africa, a savage land by his reckoning. They go about bare naked in some places, he thinks aloud to himself. Lord Lugard and those of his ilk must have pondered at their misfortune; Africa of all places. What about China, India, Burma? Why should they send me to Africa of all places? I’ve closed for the day and walking to the Moorgate tube station. And as I look at all those white faces, I think to myself: these are not bad people, they are just human beings. I tell myself; do you think the black man would have been able to secure his emancipation without the sweat and blood of white people? The smile of the WASP (also immaculately groomed) who gave up his seat on the tube for the pregnant black lady on the tube comes to mind. Then I remember the unpleasant remarks of that belligerent head-shaved white youth who thought my disapproval of his dog groveling on everyone in the tube was inappropriate. The fact is there will always be tensions between human beings. If it is not race, it would be tribe, class, lineage, education, networks; the list is endless. After all, white people are not responsible for the Rwandan genocide and the numerous inter-tribal conflicts in Africa
So, what now for this young African? Well, I have my sunglasses on this morning. I tell myself the sun would come up today. The sun will shine bright today. So, I’m going to need my sunglasses to protect me from the glare of the sun even though I still think its winter (I’ve been seeing some people leaving a few buttons open and I’m thinking; very brave, very brave indeed). I tell myself I’ll remain optimistic about the innate kindness of the human spirit. I tell myself I’m the master of my fate. I tell myself I shall prevail. Look at President Obama. I still remember to this day when back in my Politics class at Lagos Business School during my MBA studies, the teacher (very prominent Nigerian political commentator these days) thought the increasingly strong showing of the then presidential candidate was just one of those fools’ parade. It wasn’t an inconsiderate remark. There had been such dreamers in the past. Candidate Obama had a daunting task. He knew like every educated black person does that there would be resistance from all quarters; black, white, conservatives, you name it! He had to; because his heroes certainly didn’t have it easy. I’m reminded about Hilary Clinton’s remarks about the Candidate when she was still vying for the democratic nomination. President Obama prevailed because he didn’t get angry I tell myself. Or maybe he did. Maybe he hid his anger. Maybe he converted his anger like Mandela did. A law professor, he certainly didn’t achieve that height by not keeping his emotions in check. But this is a digression. The venerable investment banker said he goes to Africa when he wants to see some lions. Some lions! Well, at least he got that right. He should go to Africa and lions he shall see! Countries and peoples rising up each day, some as early as 3am in the hope that this day they shall not lack. Today, my children shall feed. My children! They shall wear well-pressed clothes. They shall go to school and become doctors, engineers, teachers, lawyers, bankers! My children! They shall make me proud. They are lions!
So, I’m on the streets of London again. This time, I’ve alighted the train (the DLR! Talk about that daily commute another day). What is it about Africa? What is holding us back? I’m now at the front door of my flat; quickly change my clothes eager for the view of the River Thames. Seated, coffee mug in hand, I look over the horizon and my mind goes back to Admiralty Way in the highbrow Lekki area of Lagos. Just before I left for London in July 2013, the government of that dynamic city had just finished commissioning a suspension bridge linking two of the most affluent areas of the city: Lekki and Ikoyi. I’m taking a walk up the bridge (the bridge is like a parabola) for the first time, a broad smile on my face. I just couldn’t hide my excitement and great pleasure as I set foot on that bridge. I looked across and saw another compatriot touching the railings of the bridge smiling. He looked over and saw me, another stranger similarly pleased. We didn’t exchange pleasantries. We understood each other quite well. I imagine he thought like I did; this type of infrastructure is not exclusive to Europe or America. This is Nigeria and I’m walking on a “tear rubber” (local parlance for brand new) suspension bridge. This is my country and this was done. Maybe there is hope then. Maybe my leaders shall someday put the people first. Maybe my children shall live in a country the envy of others; including those WASPs who come to Africa smiling but thinking in their heads (bloody stupid Africans!). Just maybe, The Economist would have cause to eat its words about the dark continent. A dark continent! Some nerve. What dream did that writer have to take such a swipe at a people? What hubris made him think to call a billion people hopeless? Who gave him the right to be judge and jury to a people’s future? The supposed balance in the body is no matter. History largely remembers the front cover! But then reality sets in, our fate (largely sorry thus far) has been shaped not by our colonisers but by ourselves. Slavery had willing collaborators among the black rulership in Africa. Brothers snaring each other to enslavement camps to be put aboard America & Europe-bound slave ships. And you see some blacks go about as if our fate is to be forever shaped by that dark part of our history. The black man forgets that Europeans were once savages too. The black man forgets that sometimes you need hubris. The black man forgets that the height of his ambitions is first determined by how much worth he places on himself. What, you see black women burning their hair and skin to look white; wearing hair removed from the heads of Asians, South Americans; and you think to yourself: why wouldn’t they denigrate you? Why wouldn’t they say to your face (these days they whistle): bloody African! I’m writing this as I wait for the clock to hit 12 noon for a scheduled conference call on my beloved country. And I sigh to myself: Oh Africa!
Where is Rissik Street? I keep walking downtown Braamfontein on my way to the SARS (South African Revenue Service) office on Rissik street in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is the 26th of February 2014, budget day in South Africa. The Treasury website indicated one could procure a copy of the 2014 budget review from their office. So, where the heck is Rissik street? Okay, there is Loveday Street, turn left? No, that’s De Korte Street? right? Maybe you should ask someone. Who do I ask? I did ask someone earlier back when I was still on Jorissen street. Okay, that guy over there looks approachable. “Hey bra, I’m looking for Rissik Street”. “Rissik Street, Rissik Street,….” The good Samaritan checks his phone, repeating to himself aloud “Rissik Street, Rissik street…” Hmmn I think you’d have to go down Mandela bridge and turn left. Cheers man!” So, I thank him with a smile thinking “over Mandela bridge…is that not where the garage is? No, I’m going to keep walking and maybe ask someone else” As I continue walking uphill (or is it downhill?) on Jorissen Street (which street again?), I thought to myself why the heck do I want a copy of South Africa’s 2014 budget while on vacation despite having contacted the flu and barely able to walk straight.
I first came to South Africa in January 2011 to start my doctoral degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. As is usually the case for first-comers, I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast recommended by one of the staffers at Wits Business School. A dozen trips since, I have to tell you: South Africa is a beautiful country! But what has that got to do with my braving my flu shivers to go far off Braamfontein from Auckland Park to go get a copy of the 2014 budget review? The reason is simple. On my visit this time around, I stayed at the same B&D I first lodged in when I visited the country for the first time in 2011. Something struck me as I met the familiar gazes and exchanged the typical warm African pleasantries. Those eyes. They were the same people who worked there those four years ago. Their economic status hadn’t changed. Their social status hadn’t changed. They were neither thinner nor had they added weight. They were exactly as they were those four years ago! And they are the lucky ones!
So why did I want a copy of the budget? Simple! I wanted to know how much the South African government was going to spend on education. I wanted to know how much was going to be spent on scholarships, education grants, et cetera. For you see, the circumstances of those friends of mine at that B&B likely didn’t change because there was nothing else they could do. They have basic education and were born during the apartheid era. And they are the fortunate few; they have a steady job! For such people, the only hope they have is for their children to have an education, get a plum job and perchance lift the other members of the family out of poverty. An education, then a job, and perhaps some dignity at last. If only it were that simple!
It all boils down to a simple phrase: Economic freedom! (No entity has exclusivity on that phrase by the way). That is what us Africans do not yet have enough of. Not that all of us are not economically constrained in one way or another. Yes, including the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of this world. It is the degree that differs. Am I economically free if I’m able to afford three meals a day? Is that enough? Am I economically free if I’m able to, in addition to feeding, send my children to school? Is that enough? Or is it when I’m able to go on vacations to exotic lands? Enough? Is it when I have a car? OK, what type of car? A German car? Free? A house? One house? Two? What is economic freedom? Is it when I’m able to spend more than one dollar a day? And by the way, what is that? One dollar? You couldn’t buy a decent meal on one dollar in some African cities talk less in chic Johannesburg.
So yes, the budget! My trek was not in vain it turns out. There would be increased spending on education initiatives for all South Africans (mostly blacks you see). Maybe more in the future? Quite likely. But then comes the question of the appropriate conditions for acquiring knowledge. If most live in ramshackle sheds, sometimes a dozen people in a single room by some accounts, is it likely I’ll be able to do any amount of decent study under such conditions? Never mind the noise coming from outside as rival gangs throw “jibes” at each other. And o yes, my beautiful African sister is sleeping. Thank God! It is late. She mustn’t stay out late, you see. The odds against the black population in South Africa is unbelievably daunting!
I use South Africa as an example because it is the most advanced country on the African continent. It has a world class financial market, the infrastructure is superb and it has huge knowledge capital (mostly white-owned). But that is not a bad thing, at all. The literature on development in Africa is awash with talk of skills transfer and all that good stuff. As knowledge resides in the brains of human beings, well they have to want to come over to the continent in the first place before any transfer can take place. In the case of South Africa, that is not a challenge! They already live there! You see, the path to economic freedom as Mandela realized early on requires the joint efforts of both black and white South Africans! Incidentally, the case is no different in the rest of Africa. The majority of African SMEs with capital in excess of one million US dollars (USD1mn) is owned by resident but non-black Africans.
So you see, the problem with Africa; two words: Knowledge and Leadership! We have a deficit of knowledge and leadership in Africa! So, how did we get here? Surely, a lot of us go to school. A lot of Africans are to be found in the top schools around the world. Most of our leaders went to Oxbridge, Ivy League schools and a lot of Africans are (and have been) exemplary leaders in business, politics, and international relations. Well, I’ll say it. The President of the United States is African! The CEO of McDonalds is African! The United Nations has had two African Secretaries-General! (or is it Secretary-Generals? knock on the head). The City in London and Wall Street in New York have many African Managing Directors (and some CEOs?). Thus, the problem is not us as a people. It has to be something else. The environment? Our culture? Religion? Surely, something must be said for why Africans thrive in distant lands and yet flounder in their native countries.
Ah yes, the budget! It is no matter really. All sides of the divide know they have to address the poverty of black South Africans, you see. And indeed all Africans! They only differ on how to go about it. Indigenization? Black Empowerment? Nationalization? Land reforms? Capitalism? Socio-capitalism? Africapitalism? All fancy words, if you ask me. The immediate and feasible solution is education and leadership by all Africans! Leadership is a fancy word as well it turns out. Well, it means labour leaders should think about the consequences of their actions on job creation when they decide to go on strikes. It means African leaders should be tough in pre-exploration negotiations of natural resources in their countries. It means we should not throw trash out of our car windows as if some miracle would pick them up the street for us. It means we shouldn’t attend parties organized by public officials when clearly they were organized from the proceeds of corruption. It means we shouldn’t so much as exchange pleasantries with a corrupt public official. It means we would vote for the person with the best ideas. It means we’d pay our taxes. It means we’d not jump the queue. It means we wouldn’t cheat in exams. It means we won’t drive against traffic. Leadership, it turns out, would be required of all of us. Not just our rosy-cheeked leaders. They all have shiny and rosy cheeks! I’m trying to remember any of our leaders without comfort written all over them. Okay, one President has a steely, hard look.
Irrespective of their troubles, however, Black South Africans still have it better than most Africans. Their government provides them all sorts of social assistance. You only need to visit OR Tambo International Airport to see how many citizens of other African countries visit South Africa on a daily basis. So, what about Nigeria? My dear country. Soon perhaps to become the biggest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa (My South African friends give me a scowl anytime I throw that jibe at them). Well, size is not enough. It reminds me of a scene I witnessed at OR Tambo on one of my trips. The immigration officer asked these pretty white South African girls (they caught my eye, you see) why the heck they were going to Lagos. The damsels simply looked at each smiling (laughing actually). Today, a lot of South African capital is making its way into Nigeria and increasingly other African countries. Those smart South Africans now realize there is increasingly more gold to be earned by looking up north! Incidentally, this is also one of the reasons I am optimistic about Africa. This is because it is not only South African capital that has been making the rounds. Nigerian capital has been spreading across the continent as well.
So yes, Nigeria. We are hosting the World Economic Forum for Africa in May 2014. And guess what, they are all going to talk about financial inclusion. If you ask me, I’ll just say fill the panels with Kenyans! There is a lot they could teach the rest of Africa about financial inclusion. And by the way, any bank in Africa thinking of opening more branches is likely not being strategic. The key to increasing financial inclusion in Africa is through mobile devices. It reminds me of the story of a major African telecom firm’s move into Nigeria. The African and international business community thought they had to be mad! More than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day, how are they going to be able to afford a mobile phone? They said. It turns out the informal economy may be larger than the data suggests. Don’t take my word for it. Go and check the income statements of the major African telecom firms. And mind you, all the revenue is cash!
So, what about Rissik Street? It turns out the SARS office was at the very end (or beginning?) of Rissik Street. It is more like the story of Africa and its development. The beginning and end (up to this point in our history) of our development journey hasn’t changed much. We are still poor. We still don’t produce much. We are still dependent on foreigners for aid. Asian tigers once our contemporaries still give us aid. It is a sad narrative. But it doesn’t have to remain so. As global capital becomes more spread out, striding east and west, in there lies a great opportunity for Africa. With knowledge and leadership, we can change our fortunes if we choose. It starts with you and I.